Finally driving up into Yosemite Tuesday afternoon, stuck behind slow rvs, but one pass and I’m flying through the afternoon. You come up around Olmsted point, and then suddenly Lake Tenaya and Fairview dome come into view, blue cloud plumes rising behind, the light was yellow and orange on the pines and rock, and being a tuesday there were few people. Since my mother was pregnant with me my parents have been taking me, and then my brother, to Tuolumne meadows during the golden summers, to share this place of grace with us. I think about what this place was like when people lived here seasonally, before there were roads, these magnificent rocks, these meadows in thousands and millions of sunsets in peace and quiet. People come through here tracing paths up the rock faces, through those trees, just glimpsing the humbling magnitude of grace this place offers us in our short lives, flitting across the surface of the world and places like this. As I drove through I thought of the last three generations of my own family on the shores of this lake trying to teach their children what it means to love and respect a place, and to take care of it, and more importantly how places like this take care of us, touch places and natures inside of us that we don’t live in anymore. I’ve been here so many times, and still it was never as beautiful as it was this afternoon, glowing. I raced to meet my brother on the eastern side, before dawn the next morning we were heading to the Palisades.
Summer is time to be in the mountains, seeking crags, peaks, silence, scotch by the fire and cold water that purifies whatever the city has done to your heart throughout the year. It breaks you open, soaks in and moistens your soul, sings in your ear songs you forgot in childhood, takes the heat from the hike, the heat from the sun you’ve gathered, and melts you into the source…like that. When my brother and I meet in the mountains we hug like we’re home. This evening we’re sleeping on the couchs of guide Rick Poetdky, he guides us in our cars to two spots in front of his house which is in the small town, if you can call it that, of Crowley Lake. Accross the street is a stream that runs all year and undeveloped brush running up to the base of the mountains. He introduces us to his wife Michelle and his two dogs, Bandit and Sage. Bandit runs around like a tiny bumper car on speed jumping and crashing while Sage, an australian blue healer tries to herd him and us to where I’m not sure. We sort gear on a tarp outside with headlamps, talk about el nino and the local drunk, and then get to sleep. At four am Rick wakes us up and the coffee is on.
I like Rick, he is a stocky mountain man that used to be in the Navy and is a little hard of hearing so he speaks loudly and his tone is a little gruff, but he’s quite sweet, doting over the dogs and his sweet wife. I also like his schedule, he wakes up an hour before we need to go so we can sit around the table, drink coffee, look at the map, chat, and relax in the pre-dawn darkness. We never rush, everything has time. I am actually a bit nervous about today because I’m unacclimated and haven’t hiked for weeks. Today, we are going up 4000 feet over about 8 to 10 miles, and most of that gain is going to be over the course of about 4 miles, 2ooo of it in the last mile and a half! There are some sections of trail that are very moderate, where we move through the cool shade of huge stands of Aspen, but there is no downhill today. We’ll end up at a little over 12,000 feet.
Still, though I am seriously breathing hard and my muscles are already sore from the process of moving all my stuff (boxes of books, clothes, art supplies, furniture, etc.) up and down two flights of stairs for the last week, the air, the vivid blue sky, the dramatic decomposing granite cliffs and peaks, and everything else indescribable seems to feed an energy into me. I feel nourished and replenished each step I take. Knowing there is ice cold water to get into at the end of the day helps too. My mom thinks I’m crazy or special; and I’m not going to lie, it’s cold, and it take me some courage to get in. But the secret I know is that everything vanishes when you enter the water. It’s like dying, it feels like you’ve never breathed before you come up and gasp for breath like it was your first. The shock fills me with some kind of glee and pleasure at being alive. I think it must be something like when you catch a great wave or ski off some steep cliff…you are completely awake and the feeling lasts. The sun drying your skin is again delectable and full of life, your clothes feel good on your goose-pimpled skin and moving through the soreness of your body feels like the flow of water again, the stiffness dissolved. It’s a gift I give myself, something to look forward to in the dusty breathless moments of a long hike.
The water where we stopped was the last lake at the foot of a glacier with an enormous flat of ice and snow floating in the middle. Only three weeks earlier the lake had been frozen. Fed with glacier water and silt from the grinding of the glacier over the stone the water was just this pure turquoise, a milky blue fresh soup isolated and sparkling in the sun, slowly melting off the accumulation of winter. There was white snow and ice all around, and above us, framed by the edges of the bowl we sat in and the glacier that sits directly below it, were the revealed crags of the Palisades, jagged. These mountains are so immense that just looking at them, there are few people alive today, I would guess, that wouldn’t have the thought “it’s impossible that a human, a soft sack of blood and organs could mount one of these in a day, could stay attached to it’s surface without peeling off and careening down the deceptively soft white.” I suppose that is one of the draws I have to climbing, to mountaineering, to being in these beautiful, dangerous, isolated places; it defies what seems possibile, it challenges our perceived limitations, it calls on us to let go and move, try, strive. Again and again to put one foot in front of the other and try. Perhaps this leads one to be less afraid of success than of failure, or is it more afraid of failure than of success?
There is a conquering spirit embodied by these high altitude exploits, but I don’t think that is all there is to it. Certainly not for me. Though I admit an attraction to being able to say that I climbed the third highest peak in the country or whatever it is, when I am up there it feels like it is about something different, it is about being very alive, very close to something beautiful and dangerous, and to be speaking it’s language, to know what it’s signs say to you, to read it’s pages closely and successfully makes you feel close to a place, which is why I think sometimes you’ll hear climbers talking in great deal about their journey, every foot of a 1000, 2000, 5000, 10,000 foot journey. You may never do the same route twice, because every snow year different, the weather cycles change, the rock itself perhaps changes, each time a unique experience….there is something powerful and humbling about being in these places where both the “permanent” and mutable exist as one. While we immortalize routes in books and with ratings, we also acknowledge that some of these are crumbling piles of decomposing rock. The Sierras are actually still pushing up, a relatively young mountain range, yet are depositing more and more silt, sand and rock in the alluvial fans spreading out from their rivers’ outlets every year. In our kinship with these ancient paradoxical places, virtually unmoving in terms of our life spans yet very much alive and changing, we can feel a relationship with something at least closer to immortality or eternity. So we are given the grace of touching these heights, beholding these views if for a few short minutes, and even the grace of using our bodies to ascend such greatness; greatness risen out of ages of time that we can have no direct relationship to, but can experience through touching the sides of these seemingly immortal giants. And lots of people die doing this. And I don’t think that’s crazy, though it is sad.
Anyway, that evening, after I dropped into the water that was about 34-35 degrees and came out with skin hot to sit on the rocks cooked all day in the sun, I sat with Rick and my brother Kellen eating dinner, drinking tea and shooting the shit. We talked about old trips, though Rick by far has both of us put together beat (he’s near 50), and we talked gear and travel food. I was mentioning the trip I’m planning to be on right after this one, a six day trip starting on the High Sierra trail, off trail to the Kaweah basin and up Black Kaweah, then meetin up with another trail north of the basin to head in the Kern river canyon to the hot springs, back up the big arroya and perhaps meet back up with where we’d left the trail, or head over to little five and back to the start. Rick growled at this, “Crap! there’s much better stuff to climb in the Sierras, and anywhere. The Kaweah’s are piles of shit!” I was of course amused by his irreverence, and had known the Kaweahs themselves to be real piles of decomposed and decomposing rock, but was more interested in the basin itself and had tossed in Black Kaweah as an incentive to my partner who seemed to be fascinated with the fact that Norman Clyde had signed the register in blood. To be honest, I’ve hear it described as one of the most dangerous routes in the Sierra’s, and had been starting to have my doubts about it anyway. Personally, I’d rather do something classic and fun on good rock that was hard because it challenged my skills, not because of it’s unpredictability, i.e. because I didn’t know when some thing was going to drop out from under my feet or land on my head.
At the same time, I had never heard anyone speak disparagingly of the basin itself, rumored by everyone I knew who’d seen it to be one of the most beautiful places in the Sierras.
We hiked out on friday morning, down-climbing a very steep snowfield over a river. Kellen and Rick said it was steeper than the U-notch, which they had done with all their gear. As we approached I was nervous as I kept not seeing the slope emerge, from where I was it really was a waterfall. Kellen gave me his helmet and they both kicked steps for me as my hiking books were not nearly as stiff or solid on the bottom as theirs. They had salvaged an axe from the top which gave me a lot of confidence, but we moved very slowly, without gloves and both our hands were throbbing for half an hour after. Still it was very exhilerating and I never felt to in danger, the steps they kicked were so deep that my boots never slid. On the hike down I ran into someone on their way to the temple crag from the bay area! Someone I see at the gym, somewhat regularly.
Now tomorrow my brother and I will head to Bear Creek Spire to do the East Arete. But tonight we go out to the hot tubs in the middle of the Owen’s river valley, under the stars. I’m excited about Bear Creek Spire too because it means hiking through a trail that I’ve gone on a million times with my family as we used to rent rustic cabins a little down the road. I love going back there, it always feels like going home. We’ll also be going by the place where we spread my grandfather’s ashes a few years ago, and be able to see the whole valley from the summit when (if) we reach it.
In Mammoth tonight we’re cooking dinner for Lindsey’s grandparents and we went to Vons to get groceries. I’m not sure if there is a health food store, I’ve heard there is one but they don’t have a website. Anyway, Rick had been saying how much he loved this area because they were so self-sufficient. He has a creek across the street from his house, and there is a lots of geo-thermal energy because of the caldera, and I just didn’t say anything. It’s true, water and energy may never be lacking here. But what about food? There are NO farms anywhere around here. At best I think they could provide themselves some local meat because of the hunting and fishing. But the growing season is short, the soil is not very good, and though there may be water coming out of the mountains, there isn’t too much rain as this side of the sierras are in the rain shadow. Farmer’s market? For what farmers? So I have to wonder what could the local food movement prescribe here?
So Mammoth has a very interesting system with their waste management. Everyone takes their own trash and recycling to the dump and recycling center themselves, and sort it their themselves too! At least they are in the same place. So I wonder if this is encourages or discourages recycling? It must in some way encourage people to produce less waste, since they actually have to haul it themselves… but the consumption patterns don’t seem that different from the outside, hard to say without some statistical analysis.
The next days will be split with long days of rising at 3 am to run up to some long climbs, and then rest days. The weather in Mammoth is balmy and nice, and it’s quite a nice town to hang out in. Lindsey and I got up and went to local coffee house this morning that has local produce! I asked them where it came from and they said a farm in the Owen’s river valley, down past the green church on that road, about 45 minutes away, so Lindsey and I are talking about going to check it out.